SFU Scholarly Impact of the Week profiled May 4, 2021
By Heather Sanders
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, global understanding of the virus’s reach and impact has grown proportionately with the use of mapping applications and online dashboards. Colour-coded or choropleth maps, maps with graduated symbols, etc., are shared by media, public agencies and the private sector to give an overview of case numbers and ‘hot spots.’ However, the available data used to create these visuals are often messy and inconsistent.
For example, due to privacy restrictions data are reported at the municipal or regional level, which doesn’t provide an actual picture of local transmission and risk. Maps that rely on these limited data are not able to offer enough detail or spatial resolution to effectively inform prevention and mitigation efforts at the grassroots level. Furthermore, open source mapping software in the hands of amateur cartographers has resulted in a plethora of maps presenting at best mediocre information – and at worst actually distorting reality.
SFU Geographic Information (GI) scientists Nadine Schuurman and Leah Rosenkrantz would like to see a GIScience approach to case tracking and reporting to provide a better understanding of how COVID-19 is progressing, and what long-term impact it will have on global health.
Geography professor Nadine Schuurman leads the GIScience research lab at SFU exploring a broad range of topics such as health informatics, critical GIScience and epistemology and ontology. For the past decade, her studies have focused on health geography and understanding the environmental factors that determine human health. She has completed intensive work on injury prevention, maternal health, multiple sclerosis and the built environment in Canada and around the world.
Leah Rosenkrantz is a health geographer and PhD student at SFU. Her research explores how place and space are central to shaping human health. She is also recipient of a Mitacs Accelerate Grant and a CIHR Doctoral Award to study Health Systems. As lead author of the paper The need for GIScience in mapping COVID-19, Rosenkrantz acknowledges that maps are an important part of the toolkit available to decision makers, policy analysts, and the public in building a long-term pandemic response. However, she advises that gathering more specific data would support better informed, evidence-based decisions, and provide clearer communication to the public. “When the pandemic first hit, we saw a proliferation of mediocre maps showing the spread of COVID-19 at very low resolutions,” she explains. “This made us start thinking about the data behind these maps and how GIScience could be better mobilized to capture higher resolution spatial data on COVID cases.”
Rosenkrantz recommends adopting wide-spread use of location-based intelligence tools, such as web and mobile apps where users volunteer to share information about their health and location. Volunteered geographic information is not new – it has been used to track health statistics before. Apps like Flu Near You enable users to sign up to support the collective efforts of flu prevention. However, because participation is voluntary, it takes longer to reach the critical mass needed to recognize patterns and understand outbreak activity. In Canada, the government-developed COVID Alert app uses Bluetooth technology to track exposure, but does not track location and has been slow to take off.
Instead of relying on citizens themselves to participate in information gathering, governments around the world are taking a top-down, Big Brother approach. For example, China implemented a government-backed app that collects identity and health information and requires individuals to scan their smartphones at various checkpoints. The software then generates a personal infection risk rating to determine whether they are allowed to pass through the checkpoint. Israel revamped an anti-terrorism phone-tracking app at the start of the pandemic to monitor those infected, however the app has since been banned due to privacy issues. Similar measures have been used in South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and parts of India, though there are major privacy concerns that need to be considered with these approaches.
Regardless of how information is gathered, Rosenkrantz argues that increasing spatial resolution, and collecting more dynamic geo-located data on COVID-19 would enable researchers to go beyond the simple maps of present to tell a bigger, much more detailed story. In the short term, it would reveal which communities are testing or not testing, which groups are the most vulnerable and which environments are generating outbreaks. There is the ongoing need to assess likelihood of treatment and supports. And in the near future, easing of restrictions will require real-time monitoring of outbreaks to prevent further economic and social disruption. The use of anonymous smartphone tracking paired with spatial analysis techniques can identify new disease clusters and forecast potential hotspots. It would also help immensely with contact tracing.
Not only can a GIScience approach broaden the understanding of how human movement and interaction relates to disease transmission, it can also help compare spatial clusters of illness and recovery based on socioeconomic conditions. This is particularly important in light of the racial and economic inequalities that have been accentuated during the pandemic. Geospatial methods can reveal which communities were hardest hit, and which communities had the best recovery rates in spite of socioeconomic challenges. This information can lead to new hypotheses on the role of community cohesion and resilience during periods of isolation.
“As Canada experiences the third wave of COVID-19 and continues its vaccine roll-out, it is critical to identify who is most at risk for both contracting the disease and experiencing severe outcomes,” says Rosenkrantz. “Understanding who is most vulnerable and where major outbreaks are occurring is as essential now as it was earlier in the year.” She notes that health authorities in British Columbia have responded to geospatial data by identifying and vaccinating high risk neighbourhoods.
SFU researchers Nadine Schuurman and Leah Rosenkrantz agree that capturing geo-located data on a higher resolution scale is essential to conducting the analysis needed to address the multiple social, economic, and healthcare challenges brought on by the pandemic. The story of COVID-19 is still being written, and this is just a small sampling of what can be asked and answered by tapping into the full potential of GIScience.